In many ways, the film Jauja is one of a kind. It's made by a Dane who was born in Argentina: Lisandro Alonso with a script co-written by him with Fabian Casas about a little known region of the earth, Penatgonia, an enigmatic land full of mystery, myths and legends and for the Spanish, gold, a kind of Eldorado.("dorado" being a Spanish word meaning "gilded"). The name of the film "Jauja" is a Spanish word of Arabic origin, connoting "plenty". At the start of the film, we are given a quotation in a legend about a land dominated by Zulualaga, a lone hunter and the story of a captain dressed as a woman roaming in the wilderness of that land, apparently looking for someone. Is he really looking for someone or for something rather more ineffable?
As the film opens, we see two people, a young lady in an 18th century dress and a bonnet, Ingeborg (Villbjørk Malling Agger), her head against the shoulder of an older man in a bowler hat and suit Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen), each facing a different direction, the man towards the sea, the girl towards the land. They are discussing about what they like or dislike. The father, an engineer, dislikes the land and wishes to return to Denmark as soon as possible, the daughter says she likes the land, the desert and feels comfortable there. Her father asks her what she most wants to have. She says a dog. He asks why. She says that she would like a dog which would always follow her around, wherever she goes. In the distance, we see a naked fat man in a rock pool, relaxing, his clothes at the edge of the pool, masturbating. All across the screen in the old 4:3 aspect ratio, we see tuft grass on clumps and clumps of volcanic rock.It looks spacious, calm, peaceful. Soon Dinesen changes clothes into those of an army captain, complete military uniform with sword, pistol, rife and long spurred riding boots but appears to have a slight difficulty mounting his horse. Another army officer Lieutenant Pittaluga (Adrian Fondari) approaches (the man observed earlier to be masturbating in the rock pool) asks if he would like to go to the governor's ball and asks for for permission to take her daughter to the up-coming ball. He offers to give her daughter a horse at his ranch. The father refuses. Unbeknown to her father, her eyes were set on a younger soldier Angel Milkibar (Esteban Bigliardi?) whom she meets earlier on the salt marshes. He has given her a wooden toy soldier found floating on the surface of a small rock pool which she carefully keeps with her. Later we see Dinesen inspecting some engineering works where some trenches are being dug. But soon after that, Ingeborg disappears with the young soldier. Dinesen embarks upon a search for her, alone, with hardly any preparation by ways of food and water. The film documents that search, in beautifully shot images, with hardly any dialogue to speak of.
We see the father going first on a horse, finding traces of her daughter's footsteps in the mud, then a compass, finally the wooden toy soldier. After a long distance, he finds the soldier who elopes with his daughter. He's lying on the ground, his neck slashed, but not yet dead. He takes out his sword and put him out of misery. But when he is done, he has lost his own rifle and his horse. Someone has stolen it: Zuluaga? He sees a man in the distance, riding his horse towards the top of a col, he shoots him with his pistol. But the escaping man, is out of range. He continues the search and finds on a distant hilltop a man staggering between certain poles. When he approaches, he finds the man dead amidst the totem poles. He continues the search and discovers a dog with a wound on its shoulder on a pool where he is drinking. The dog runs away. He follows the dog and reaches a lime cave near the top of a rocky hill and finds a lady dressed with a hat, a European dress sitting outside a cave(Ghita Nørby), fanning herself with a beautiful fan and asks her for water and also if she has seen his daughter. She says she hasn't directs him to a rock at the top of the path.
He goes up and takes the water dripping down a rock at the top of that
rocky path but with nothing above it. After drinking, the woman has disappeared. He slips between the narrow slit of the limestone cave. Inside he finds the owner of the dog, the old woman dressed in European finery, sitting serenely on a chair beside a table with a lamp and a few books, and what appears to be a simple camp bed with woolen blanket over it. She offers him bread and tells him she does not have very many men in that part of the country and enigmatically that " man is not all men" but he can come by whenever he wishes because she will always be there. The man leaves and continues his search.
When the film ends, we find a girl who looks like the man's daughter lying in bed in modern day lingerie in what appears a huge mansion with an enormous garden in Eruope. She wakes up, goes to the door, puts on her sport shoes and walks towards a pack of dog in the garden outside, being attended to by an old man. One of the dogs has a patch on its shoulder, like the dog which appeared out of nowhere in the Pentagonia desert. She is told by the man servant that that patch on the dog's shoulder is caused by a nervous excitement. She takes the dog out for a stroll into the woods.
It's a film in the magical realism tradition popular in South America: the same dog with a wounded patch on its shoulder in the middle of the Pentagonia desert and that of the girl in a European mansion at the end, the woman in the dark womb-like limestone cave at the top of the hill, water dripping down a rock on top of the hill with nothing above, the man looking for her daughter without any map nor preparation. The film must be understood not realistically in the conventional way but makes sense only on the level of man's search for meaning. If we may rely on the images in the film, it seems that meaning is to found, not in his mastering of nature for profit as was being done by those men Dinesen oversees digging the trenches but in the principle of femininity: the rock pool, the old woman offering Dinesen bread and Dinesen's obsession in looking for his young and innocent daughter, not in masculinity which results always violence, ritual or otherwise: the deaths Dinesen witnessed in the wild. Whatever the true meaning may be, if any, what I find most remarkable in this film is the quality of the cinematic images, always done in beautiful colors, with painterly use of light and studied composition and the skilful use of music at critical scenes: the music seems to blend in perfectly with the images, suggesting that mix of masculinity, hardness, violence, reason and feminine, softness, sensitivity and feelings.